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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Tourist Trail in the Saints' Northern Footsteps

For MTThe Church of the Nativity of the Virgin at the Ferapontov Monastery features frescoes painted by Dionisy in 1502.
In medieval Russia, two forms of social organization flourished -- cities, where trade and political power were concentrated, and monasteries, the era's most important cultural centers.

One tourist trail that links such ancient religious and civic centers is the Golden Ring around Moscow, which includes such famous and influential monasteries as the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra. But no less interesting examples of religious architecture linked with this key period of Russian history can be found in the Vologda region, 400 kilometers north of Moscow.

Vologda's old city dates back to 1147 and is full of colorful wooden houses and its own Kremlin, the majestic St. Sofia Cathedral. The rest of the city, however, may be less interesting to the visitor and is probably best considered as a convenient departure point for other tourist destinations -- such as Veliky Ustyug, said to be the home of Ded Moroz, the Russian counterpart of Santa Claus -- or the open-air town museums at Totma, Ustyuzhna and Belozersk.

But there are two sights that should be given top priority: the Ferapontov and Kirillo-Belozersky monasteries. The history of the monasteries is connected and begins with the two monks St. Kirill and St. Ferapont, who traveled to the area from Moscow.

St. Kirill founded the Kirillo-Belozersky monastery in 1397. A year later, St. Ferapont left St. Kirill to found his own cloister. Although the Kirillo-Belozersky monastery was much richer, better known and influential in the past, time has altered the pecking order and now the Ferapontov monastery holds more for the curious visitor.

The Ferapontov monastery is about 70 kilometers northwest of Vologda and can be reached by a one-hour bus ride through the picturesque green hills of the Russky Sever National Park.

Although the monastery is now a museum, there are services on religious holidays.

The Ferapontov monastery was built over several centuries. Beginning with the wooden buildings of Ferapont's time, the first brick building at the monastery -- the Church of the Nativity of the Virgin -- was constructed by Rostov builders in about 1490. Now the ensemble consists of six brick buildings dating from the 15th through 17th centuries, including holy gates, churches, a treasury and refectory chambers, a bell tower, and a brick wall that surrounds it dating from the 19th and 20th centuries.

The main point of interest is the Church of the Nativity of the Virgin, since Dionisy, an outstanding representative of the Moscow icon painting school and the leading Russian artist of the turn of the 16th century, worked here. According to a signature left by Dionisy on the Northern Door, he and his sons Feodosy and Vladimir painted the interior walls of the church from Aug. 6 to Sept. 8, 1502. The motif of the interior frescoes of the church, which cover 600 square meters, is quite traditional for Russian Orthodox churches of the 14th to 16th centuries. Painted in pastel colors, there are frescoes depicting the Christ Pantokrator, the Enthroned Virgin, Evangelists, the Last Judgment and other figures and scenes from the Old and New Testaments, as well as key events from later Christian history, such as the Seven Universal Cathedrals accepted by the Orthodox Church.

The mural, which is of exceptional artistic value, is the only authentic and completely preserved work by the famous master and is the only existing ensemble of frescoes from medieval Russia. Dionisy's frescoes brought international recognition to the Ferapontov monastery, which was included by UNESCO on its World Heritage List in 2000. The UNESCO citation recognized that the wall paintings "are the highest expression of Russian mural art in the 15th and 16th centuries."

About 20 kilometers from Ferapontov is its slightly older sibling, the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery, which stands on the shore of Lake Siverskoye. As at Ferapontov, the first wooden churches here were replaced by stone ones at the end of the 15th century. Among the buildings of special interest are the first and the oldest Uspensky Cathedral of the Assumption, built in 1497, the Church of the Archangel Gabriel with an attached bell tower and a refectory. The reign of the Moscow princes was a good time for the monastery, which received large donations. Today, however, the monastery is important mostly for its permanent museum displays, which feature church utensils, books and an extensive collection of icons, including some by Dionisy and his school. The exhibition also covers the times when the northern monasteries became a place of exile.

The Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery is also a good example of Russian medieval religious and defensive stone architecture. Its historical function as Moscow's outpost on the northern trading routes is reflected in its enormous fortified walls. Now half-ruined, the monastery nevertheless retains a certain majestic beauty.